If certain students at Wyoming Valley West School District parrot their peers elsewhere, the laundry list of excuses they’re likely to give for skipping school looks like this:
Had to babysit my younger sibling.
Ultimately, no matter how serious or silly the reason, a high number of student absences signals trouble not only for the missing students, but for others in the class, for the school district and the community.
Chronic truants are likely to sabotage their own learning – and subsequent career and life opportunities. Moreover, they potentially can disrupt a teacher’s lesson plans, slowing the academic progress of the students who consistently are at their desks. That’s no good for districts, where poor test performance gets blamed on the faculty.
And then there are the ugly repercussions beyond school walls.
“In addition to falling behind in academics, students who are not in school on a regular basis are more likely to get into trouble with the law and cause problems in their communities,” according to an article titled “Student Attendance: Issues to Consider” on the greatschools.org website. The same article spotlights a 2008 study showing a link between dropout patterns and poor attendance, starting in kindergarten.
Considering what’s at stake with truancy, Valley West’s administrators did the right thing for this school year by adopting new rules on out-of-control absenteeism. This district’s “habitual truancy rate,” as measured by the state between 2008 and 2013, had more than doubled. Superintendent Chuck Suppon said earlier this month, “The consensus at the elementary, middle and high school levels was that the amount of time kids were missing was getting out of hand.”
This year, each school has a truancy elimination plan team.
If a student notches four unexcused absences, the team is expected to meet with the student as well as his or her parent or guardian. Collectively, they will draw up a plan. Failure to follow the plan will result in a citation, because Pennsylvania law requires school attendance, sending the student to a district judge.
Parents’ input in this process is key; they need to emphasize to the child the importance of an education and insist on his or her attendance. Too often, parents have been culpable, even covering for children who chalked up too many unexcused absences early in the year and should have been barred from the prom. As if by magic, those parents produced excuses just before the big dance.
As Valley West clamps down on truancy, its teams should commit to helping students and their parents, not punishing them. Team members should be willing to admit and address school faults. If a student finds a particular topic to be insipidly dry, or perceives the school environment as unsafe, search for a satisfactory resolution. Courtrooms always should be a last resort.
If truancy cases end up there, district judges should avoid leveling fines – which most students and their families can’t easily pay – and suspensions – which only further alienate young people from the classroom. After all, the classroom is where they should be.